Mark's Gospel

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Jesus and the Law

Jesus greatly angered his Jewish contemporaries because they believed that he wished to do away with the Law of Moses. For a devout Jew the ritual law, which was concerned with the ceremonies of their religion, was just as binding as the moral law, which was concerned with their duties towards their fellow men. When for example, Jesus did things on the Sabbath day which broke the ritual law they were scandalized. He not only failed to observe such ritual laws as ceremonial washings (Mark 7:1-4), but also claimed the right to reinterpret the laws of right behaviour. However, he could say that he had not come to abolish the Law, and even said that the Scribes and Pharisees sat in the chair of Moses and that attention should be paid to their words (Matthew 23:2).

Jesus himself observed the Law about the attendance of synagogue worship on the Sabbath (Luke 4:16). He also commanded a leper he had healed to appear before the priest and to offer up the sacrifice required by the Law after the cure had been certified (Matthew 8:48; Mark 1:44; Luke 5:14). He criticized the Pharisees (Matthew 23) because they made no distinction between the ritual and moral laws. He accused them of allowing ritual laws to take precedence over moral laws. The moral law set out the duty of children towards their elderly parents. Jesus reminds them that Moses said, 'Honour your father and your mother', but the ritual law allowed them to set apart for the work of God 'Corban', money or goods which ought to be used for the support of needy parents (Mark 7:9ff). There is a way in which the ritual law contradicted the Law of Moses.

Jesus seems to contradict himself. On the one hand he upheld the Law, saying that 'not a letter or stroke' would disappear from it. Yet on the other hand he felt free to criticize it and even to amend it. The key to this apparent contradiction is that Jesus made a careful distinction between the ceremonial and moral or ethical law. He was not against ritual in principle, but he saw that it could be self-defeating. He criticized those who made an outward show of their religion by standing and praying at street corners so that their piety could be observed by as many people as possible (Matthew 6:5). Likewise he also criticized those who, when they were fasting, tried to make their self-discipline as obvious as possible by pulling long faces to let others know they were fasting (Matthew 6:16). The only reward such people will have is on earth. He called such people hypocrites, a Greek word which means 'someone acting a part'. Above all, however, he criticized the ritual law when it stood in the way of human need. This is why he did not hesitate to heal the sick on the Sabbath day, even in the synagogue (Mark 3:1-6). His attitude to Sabbath observance was that 'The Sabbath was made for the sake of man and not man for the Sabbath' (Mark 2:27).

Jesus taught that the Law was to be observed in accordance with its original purpose, duty towards God and also towards men. If the work of God, or human need was being hindered because of the Law, then the work of God or human need claimed priority.

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